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Great Games Captivate The Imagination

Seeing that title, you're probably thinking, "No duh," but I'm being a little more literal than you might be expecting.  What does it really mean to captivate the imagination in games?  What are some features that should entail?  The answer lead me to a minor epiphany that truly great games do this, and specifically this.

This Bizarro weekend went pretty much the same as the last two: Factorio and Divinity: Original Sin 2.  But the interesting thing about these games came about when I wrote a little thing on /r/roguelikedev today:
[When developing a roguelike game, your audience is] the ones who are enticed by the potential for endless gobstoppers introduced by procedural generation, and can look at a wall of text and see a world... these people have imagination! [...] Give us some interesting decisions. Our imaginations need something to chew on.
Both Factorio and Divinity: Original Sin are actually pretty competent sandboxes along these lines:   
  • Factorio contains a plethora of factory parts that can be stitched together to form a factory, albeit to the very limited end of completing a number of necessary steps required to launch a rocket (extracting, refining, research, and manufacturing).
  • Divinity: Original Sin turns its battlefields into virtual tapestries to paint various effect fields upon, whilst also inviting you to garnish your characters' appearance and character sheets to many ends.  This is much more so than similar isometric roleplaying games, and something you would have to play to appreciate.
Here's a situation from Divinity: Original Sin 2 where a bothersome cursed item birthed a demon coincidentally when there were a dozen allied NPCs to pitch in and kill the scaly bastard.  A more emergent narrative than many such games would provide!
This is in stark contrast to something like Destiny 2.  Which, as Yahtzee said, is emblematic of everything that's wrong with AAA gaming these days. Note that Factorio and Divinity: Original Sin 2 are not running on the same business model, they're largely crowd funded.  Destiny 2 is a huge game with a huge budget, so the studio becomes not unlike a hungry whale sifting plankton from the sea.  That is the reality of AAA gaming.

Such games are designed to go after an audience that can't imagine, or does not want to imagine.  As Krug would say, "Don't Make Me Think."  So, instead, a lot of development focus goes into making it look so detailed and play so derivative that the players' imagination is dismissed from the burden of existing.  I'm not one to judge, every game needs to be designed to fill a niche.   But does that sound like you?
Destiny 2 actually makes coloring your armor something you have to grind to do, and then it's a one-time use consumable that you're too afraid to use because some better gear will likely drop and replace what you're coloring.  But, even if you had complete freedom to color the armor of your character, how long is that going to captivate most players' imaginations?
It's a shame that AAA gaming identifies the biggest collection of plankton to be imbeciles, and designs their games accordingly.  Maybe everybody has an imagination.  Maybe we should develop more games that encourage them to use it.  Maybe "Don't Make Me Think" is the worse possible way to design a game, because thinking is where the imagination lives.  Maybe, deep down at the root of the problem, this is the main wrong turn that AAA gaming has taken.

That's a few too many maybes.  I can only speak for myself.  So when I talk about "great games," I'm talking about my niche; the kinds of games I like.  After all, "good" or "great" are just subjective judgements made by an individual.  So the minor epiphany I had today was that great games, for me, are ones that captivate the imagination.

Now, thinking back to Scribblenauts, here's an example of a game that set out to be fantastic playground for the imagination.  It lets you spawn virtually any word you can spell into the world, and the sequel even lets you apply adjectives.  The creative opportunities should abound!  Unfortunately, Scribblenaut's premise didn't last long into execution, I have an idea as to why.

First, consider their chosen the audience.  The style and overall presentation of Scribblenauts clearly indicates that they were targetting kids as their demographics.  Why choose kids?  Because kids have lower standards and are easier to impress.  This gives the developers a pass, a easy way out, it's not necessarily a game anymore, it's a vocabulary learning tool.  Maybe I am being cynical now, and the actual reason why was because kids are more likely to want to use their imagination.
And here Angry Joe demonstrates how even acting like a kid won't get you through these puzzles.
Yet, surely they realized they were up against a serious technical limitation, one the audience could be used to dismiss: the fact that making a game around spawning everything in the dictionary is hard.  Part of that is because, if the player was allowed to use whatever solution popped in their head, it would hardly be a challenge.  But I would wager an even larger problem for the developers of the Scribblenauts series is that they had absolutely no way of knowing what the players would come up with, so they could only program the puzzles to respond to the solutions they could anticipate.

Consequently, nearly every puzzle in Scribblenauts requires an item that has a pre-scripted solution, very few of them are designed with the emergent solution in mind (though, thanks to the inclusion of a rudimentary physics engine, you might be able to finagle one in a roundabout fashion).  So my imagination was frustrated with Scribblenauts, it was the opposite of the kind of toy the imagination truly wants to play with, one where the imagining was already done and now you need to figure out what they wanted you to parrot.  In the end, the imagination was not captivated after all, although it was excited at the potential of the premise!
It's interesting how Factorio complexes often end up looking like circuit boards.  But even if I deliberately wrought the layout to look like abstract art, it would still work as long as the right things get to the right destination.
I am not saying that Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Factorio are the pinnacle of the imagination.  After all, at the end of the day, they still have to be played on an overgrown calculator, so there is a challenge in overcoming the limitation of our medium.  However, by harnessing the power of emergence, and giving us a lot of well-defined and varied tools to use, these games go further than most.  This is also reflected in the goals, which were designed to be solved in ways even the developers did not anticipate.  The imagination really likes that.

Yet, in order for it to be a game, you need something to push back against your imagination.  You need a challenge. Otherwise, why not just go paint a picture?  Both games are quite challenging.   That is the spice that completes the dish.
Here because I needed a graph that represented challenge in games, but didn't want to drag out the Dwarf Fortress/EVE Online comic again.
The prevailing game appeal theory, known as "flow theory," is that games are "fun" because they are just challenging enough that the player can progress, but hard enough that the player feels they are being challenged.  However, what is actually being challenged?  I propose it is the players' imagination.  The imagination loves to discover how to utilize tools to overcome a challenge.  That is the missing part of the popular theory.

Give me a game with lots of interesting tools and the right challenges to overcome, my imagination will be captivated, and I will leave feeling that is a great game.  That seems like a game design premise that nearly everyone would enjoy.
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